Is the media responsible for making James Holmes famous?
Some people — including some victims' families and Westword readers — believe so.
"You need to stop showing the shooter's picture and name, as you seem to enjoy doing," a commenter wrote in response to a blog post we published in January. The post was based on testimony given at Holmes's preliminary hearing and chronicled the actions he took before the shooting, including stockpiling weapons. "You don't have to glamorize him. BUT YOU DO."
"Really don't want to look at his face, nor read about him, nor hear another word about him!!!!!!!" a reader commented on a post we published April 1, the day that Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler announced he will seek the death penalty in the case.
"We immortalize those [who] bring evil to innocence and forget the names of those [who] paid the ultimate price without ever knowing it," another wrote.
Tom and Caren Teves, whose 24-year-old son Alex was one of the twelve people killed in the July 20 massacre at the Century 16 theater, are among those who don't think newspapers, websites or TV and radio stations that report on the tragedy should use Holmes's name or photograph. "The media needs to stop making these people notorious," Tom Teves says.
To that end, the Teves family started the Alex Teves Challenge. "The goal is to take away a potential piece of a complex puzzle of motivating factors," its website explains. "CHALLENGE THE MEDIA to stop using the name and likeness of mass shooters," a move it says would limit the "notoriety and infamy" that mass killers and their copycats seek.
Instead of focusing on suspected mass murderers, Tom Teves argues, the media should pay more attention to the victims of their horrendous crimes — whom he believes are too quickly forgotten. To make his point, he often plays a trick on reporters.
"The idiot who shot my son, what was his name?" he asks. When the reporter answers "James Holmes," Teves continues to his next question: What was the name of the nine-year-old girl killed in Tucson by the shooter who also injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords?
"The journalist never gets it right," Teves says. Her name was Christina-Taylor Green.
Some local media outlets have responded to concerns like these by being more discriminating about when and how often to use Holmes's name and photo.
"We have tried to handle it sensitively," says Tim Wieland, news director at Denver's CBS4. "We haven't and can't commit to never using the suspect's name and picture. At the end of the day, our job is to report the news, and that involves reporting on the suspect."
But, he says, "when we do stories solely focused on the victims, we do make an effort to focus those stories on the victims or the family or the friends...and leave Holmes out of it."
The policy at 9News is similar, says news director Patti Dennis: "Our guidelines have always been that when the police tell us that they have arrested someone, unless that person is a minor, we would identify that person." However, she adds, "When a story is about the victims, we tend to refer to the suspect as a suspect, without photographs and videos."
And the station's guidelines have evolved since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, she says, after which 9News invited victims' families to talk to the staff about its coverage. That conversation helped shape the station's current approach.
Jeff Harris, news director at 7News, says his station also learned from Columbine. "It's this station that has the iconic image of Patrick Ireland falling out of the library at Columbine," he says. "And we have ceased to air that...because of the iconic nature and the impact that had in our community." The station does allow the clip to be licensed if Ireland requests it.
As for the Aurora shooting, 7News tries to "be judicious" about using Holmes's name and image, Harris says. Neither appeared in stories about the funerals for those who died, for example.
The Denver Post has also addressed concerns about Holmes's name and photo. On March 12, the day that Holmes was in court to enter a plea, city editor Dana Coffield wrote a blog post titled "Why we must use James Holmes's name and photo in our stories."
She noted that the Post doesn't use Holmes's name in stories about victims and that in the days following the shooting, editors were careful about where to place stories in the paper, "making sure that items about the investigation were as far as possible from stories about the victims and the impact of the shooting on the community."
"But," she added, "there are days...when the news is about James Holmes and we must use his name, and we must photograph him and his parents. The court proceedings are about him and the progress, however incremental, of his prosecution, and must be documented. This is painful and unfamiliar territory for the survivors, but the alleged shooter survived to be tried."
In response to a question about whether victims' or readers' concerns influenced the Post's guidelines, editor Greg Moore e-mailed the following answer: "We have had some people publicly suggest we not name alleged mass murderers and not publish their photos. We understand that sentiment and have printed those sentiments before. At the same time, those are facts, and acting as if they don't exist is an arbitrary stance that changes nothing.... But readers have influenced our decisions about how we play photos of alleged mass murderers and things like that."
The Associated Press, the worldwide news agency known for its style guidelines, has also been covering the case. Denver bureau chief Jim Clarke says the AP's policy is to "report the news fairly and accurately." A suspect's name and photo are newsworthy, he says: "The name of somebody arrested for the crime, that person's identity, is a crucial part of the story."
At Westword, editor Patricia Calhoun says the policy is that if we're writing about someone accused of a crime, we use his or her name because it's part of the historic record.
Kelly McBride, who specializes in media ethics for the Poynter Institute, says the media has three jobs when it comes to covering a mass tragedy: chronicle what happened; hold authorities and those who could have prevented it accountable; and tell the stories of the people involved. That includes the alleged perpetrator, she says.
"It's really easy to dismiss these people as monsters," McBride says. But doing so doesn't help explain what happened, or didn't happen, to allow a person to commit mass murder.
McBride believes there's a reasonable middle ground between using a suspect's name and photo in every story and never using it at all. Completely censoring his identity isn't the answer, she says. "When we stop naming something, we give it power over us."
But local media outlets should also be sensitive to the fact that their audience has to live with the horror of what happened every day, unlike people reading or watching national news outlets in other states. "We in the national audience talk about Columbine as an icon," she says. "But the people who live there, they talk about Columbine as this moment that their community was ripped apart.... Journalism plays a really important role in allowing the community to have conversations and chronicling that pain and suffering."
As for Teves, he concedes that understanding how and why a person indiscriminately kills strangers is useful in preventing another massacre, and he knows that reporters play a role in unearthing that information. But he doesn't think journalists must print a killer's name to explain his motivations. Doing so makes the media partly to blame for the next tragedy, he says.
"If I'm 20 percent right, then between Sandy Hook and Aurora, you have the bodies of four people on your hands," he says about the media.
And even if he's wrong, Teves doesn't see the harm in finding out for sure. "What's the danger in trying my idea?" he asks. "Have some moral courage, show leadership, take ownership and be what you're supposed to be, which is the most ethical people in our society.... You have to get your editors and producers to sign up, too. Tell them not to be such big babies."
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